Chris Chappell's encounter with a stoat and his skill with a camera deserve a wide audience. Tell your friends.
The joy of exploring the Somerset countryside is that you never know what you may find. Venturing out on the 1st July, to get a sense of what this month might offer, I came across three stoats chasing each other around on a drove track. As I watched, two more appeared, and joined in the game. And then another, on a very different mission, as she had a very small kit in her mouth. She ran straight toward me, dashed past my feet, on down the track, and into the vegetation to a new nest site. Guessing she would come back for more kits, I waited, and sure enough, the jill re-appeared, running in little spurts. At one point she stopped, sniffed at my boot, and looked up at me, her bright eyes looked up at me as if she was wondering what I was doing on her patch. She made at least eight more trips with tiny kits. I looked on in awe, trying to get some photos without disturbing them. Stoats move their young regularly as a measure against predation, as the nest site soon becomes fouled by the kits, which makes it easier for a fox to find. Fresh bedding in the new nest also reduces parasites and the risk of disease. These encounters don't happen very often, but if you are out in the wild, there is always a chance.
As summer arrives, the countryside may seem quieter, as the foliage provides cover for fledgling birds, and young mammals. Some birds are still singing, but with less vigour. However, butterflies and dragonflies are abundant and many species can be found in the varied habitats in the county. Migrating painted lady butterflies have arrived from Africa, adding to the spectacle. They may be found clustering on buddleia or hemp-agrimony. July is the peak month for dragonflies and damselflies on the wing, when in theory all of the known Somerset species may be seen. They make excellent subjects for close-up photography.
Swifts, swallows and house martins will spend the days catching insects to feed their young. Swifts will collect a mixture of insects and airborne spiders, feeding high in the sky with the house martins. Swallows prefer to swoop low over fields and meadows, dashing after insects.
Most birds have raised a brood to fledglings, and may have started another. Smaller birds tend to raise two or three broods, and the largest species just one. This is related to survival rates and longevity. Therefore there are many fledglings skulking in hedges, trees and reedbeds, as their parents teach them to feed for themselves. The adult cuckoos are migrating south, heading back to Africa, leaving their chicks to be raised by their host species. Once the young cuckoos have built up their weight, and developed their wing muscles, they will follow on in the coming weeks. So there is just a chance of spotting a plump cuckoo chick, waiting to be fed by their diminutive adopted parents.
You may see the pretty spotted flycatcher, one of the last migrants to arrive, catching flies by repeatedly returning to the same branch, a distinguishing characteristic of the species. Sparrow sized, a delicate bird with a sharp bill, the breast is more flecked than spotted, they are sadly increasingly rare. Spotted flycatchers are very much at home in a small garden, all they need are the flies and a suitable perch. The spotted flycatcher has suffered a massive decline in numbers in the past 50 years, and a bird that was common is now rare, having declined by some 90% , almost certainly due to the decline in the large flying insects that they need to feed on.
The Grass snake
There is nothing quite like the thrill felt when you spot a snake in the wild. The grass snake is the species you are most likely to see. Favouring damp marshland and meadows, they will also exist happily in a small garden, especially if you have a pond. Their diet consists of amphibians and occasionally mice and voles, hunting by stealth, and striking at their prey, which they swallow over a period of time. They are however completely harmless to humans, a large specimen may attempt to bite you, but they have no teeth, just a serrated jaw. Their first defence is to flee, but if you do pick one up, it will most likely wrap itself around your hand and deposit a foul smelling liquid from its vent. The grass snake is our biggest snake, reaching up to 150cms in length. Olive green in colour with yellow and black behind the head, and small black markings on the flank, a little research will distinguish the grass snake from an adder. Snakes shed their skins once or twice a year, if you find one with clouded eyes, this indicates it is about to slough the skin. The larger females are now carrying eggs, and will seek out a pile of rotting plant matter, where a mature adult swill lay 30-40 eggs. The natural warmth of fermenting vegetation acts as an incubator, and about 10 weeks later, the fully formed but tiny young will emerge. Therefore, they are quite likely to choose your compost heap as a suitable place to deposit their eggs.
The Steart Marshes project was commenced in 2012, after an extensive period of research and consultation, converting some 740 acres of grassland into saltmarsh by breaching the sea wall. This has the combined effect of managing the flood risks in the Bristol Channel and providing a major wildlife reserve for birds, mammals and invertebrates. The project was completed four years ago, and is now well on the way to becoming fully re- naturalised. Located adjacent to the Bridgwater Bay National Nature Reserve, the Steart Marshes now supports a breeding population of avocets, oystercatchers, little ringed plovers and more. Spoonbills are regular visitors, a bird of the egret family that has a growing presence in the UK. In July, you may see flocks of linnets, goldfinches and starlings, comprised of this year's fledging. Dragonflies and butterflies abound. Reed, sedge and Cetti's warblers are quieter now, as they have young to feed, but they may be spotted, and will make their rasping alarm call if you are close to the nest. As for raptors, buzzard, kestrel and marsh harrier are seen, and increasingly red kites, plus peregrine and merlin in winter months.
There are various walks on well constructed paths, enabling those of all abilities to explore the area. ideally you would take a picnic, as you are a long way from the nearest cafe or pub, but there are toilet facilities at the main car park. Allow a day to explore the area, there are numerous hides for the quiet observance of the wildlife, and numerous benches for picnickers.
And whilst at Steart, you may see avocets. This beautiful bird, which was driven to near extinction in the early 1800s, by hunting and egg collecting, is making a steady recovery in the UK, and Somerset is playing its part in this process. The area where you will find them is the Bridgwater Bay and the river Parrett Estuary. From the Quantocks hides at Steart you may see several pairs caring for young at different stages of growth, which may be seen with a good pair of binoculars. A large wader, the avocet is unmistakeable, black and white, with long dull pink legs, and fine upturned bill, Avocets are extremely protective parents, and will quickly rise and attack any passing predator, calling loudly while chasing them off. Visitors may also attract a bit of attention if you are too close to the nest or young. They have an unusual bill, curved at the end, which is used to sweep through the mud to sift out small crustaceans and worms.
All photographs by Chris Chappell
Female stoat (a jill) moving the family
Four spot chaser dragonfly